But senior Tories lashed out at his “foolish” and “facile” move, while former defence secretary Ben Wallace warned it was “division and another PM [that] would lead to the certain loss of power”.
As his attempted coup fizzled to a halt even his allies turned on him. Organisers made clear he would not now speak at a Popular Conservativism conference next month, even though the posters for the event feature his picture. A source told The Independent that they had “dumped” him.
Supporters of Mr Sunak suspect the intervention by Sir Simon, who was levelling up secretary in Ms Truss’s cabinet and awarded a knighthood by Mr Johnson, is the latest evidence of a carefully planned right-wing plot against the PM.
Tory loyalists said the orchestrated campaign to remove Mr Sunak included the following:
A controversial poll last week organised by ex-Brexit minister Lord Frost which claimed the Conservatives faced a landslide election defeat
Lord Frost has refused to name shadowy Tory donors who paid for the survey in right-wing newspaper The Daily Telegraph
Sir Simon and fellow Sunak critic Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg have joined the new Popular Conservatism group, set up by Ms Truss
The moves follow a right-wing Tory revolt, in which Sir Simon played a key role, against the PM’s Rwanda bill
Johnson cheerleader Nadine Dorries greeted news of a possible leadership challenge to Sunak with a three-word post on Twitter/X: ‘And we’re off’
Writing in the Telegraph, Sir Simon dubbed Mr Sunak’s leadership “uninspiring” and said he was “the main obstacle to our recovery”.
He wrote: “The unvarnished truth is that Rishi Sunak is leading the Conservatives into an election where we will be massacred.”
His piece prompted fury from MPs loyal to Mr Sunak but little support from those on the right of the party, including MPs worried the prime minister will lead them to electoral defeat.
A leading member of one of the right-wing groups in the party said: “We did not know it was coming. There was no co-ordination with us.” He added he was not surprised MPs were not openly backing Sir Simon.
“In politics you have to have a defined destination. But nobody knows where this would lead to. So why would you come out and say anything?” he said.
Alongside Mr Clarke’s op-ed was a YouGov opinion poll, the second in as many weeks, this time suggesting a Tory leader with core Conservative policies could beat Labour.
Critics were quick to point out both surveys was commissioned by the same group of shadowy Tory donors – known as the Conservative Britain Alliance – led by long-standing Sunak critic Lord Frost.
Home secretary James Cleverly said it was “foolish” for Sir Simon to indulge in infighting, warning “all it would do is open the door” for Labour.
Former minister Stephen Hammond also told him to shut up unless he wanted the “extinction” of the Tory party.
Business minister Kevin Hollinrake admitted that “panic” in the Tory ranks was behind the move, telling Times Radio: “Of course, some people panic at a difficult time. [But] this is not the overwhelming view of the party.”
There was very limited support for Sir Simon’s call. Tory MP Andrea Jenkyns, who has previously called for Mr Sunak to go, predicted more letters calling for a leadership challenge would be submitted.
Boris-backers the Conservative Democratic Organisation also said “urgent change” was needed.
With his attempted rebellion effectively over Sir Simon took to the airwaves to cast himself as a soothsayer.
He likened himself to a disliked man shouting “iceberg”, as he appeared to compare the Tories to the Titanic.
Amid the backlash against Sir Simon, Tory MPs also rounded on his allies.
Conor Burns, a minister in Ms Truss’s short-lived government, said the former PM and her supporters should “shut up”.
One senior Tory MP told The Independent that Sir Simon was “flying a kite that’s already broken” – and they did not expect many of his fellow right-wing Rwanda rebels to join him in his call.
Other loyal Conservative MPs largely rallied around the PM. Senior Conservatives said Sir Simon had “lost his senses”. According to one report, one called Sir Simon a “self-indulgent tosser”.
Former Tory minister Sir David Davis called his intervention “silly”. And Priti Patel, the right-wing former home secretary, said: “Engaging in facile and divisive self-indulgence only serves our opponents.”
Former trade secretary Sir Liam Fox said those attempting to “destabilise the government in an election year should understand the consequences”.
This is getting silly.
The Party and the country are sick and tired of MPs putting their own leadership ambitions ahead of the UK's best interests. https://t.co/kmkXco6hMc
— David Davis (@DavidDavisMP) January 23, 2024
Tory minister Andrew Bowie used more choice language when he used a WhatsApp group to tell fellow Tory MPs to “get a f***ing grip”, according to The Times.
Senior Tories also lampooned Sir Simon’s attempts. Former minister Tobias Ellwood accused the Truss loyalist of “throwing his teddies in the corner” because “his choice of prime minister is no longer in No 10”.
With many MPs unhappy at the party’s ratings in the polls, there is still a risk more MPs will submit no-confidence letters in Mr Sunak to the 1922 committee of backbench MPs.
One of the few who backed Sir Simon, Nadine Dorries, suggested that the foreign secretary Lord Cameron should return to Downing Street.
But The Independent understands former immigration minister Robert Jenrick, himself thought to be eyeing a leadership bid, does not intend to back Sir Simon.
The row follows the most testing week of Mr Sunak’s premiership, in which he managed to stave off a right-wing rebellion on his flagship Rwanda legislation.
Sixty conservative MPs signed rebel amendments to Mr Sunak’s legislation, dealing a serious blow to the prime minister’s authority.